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Local View: Christmas not always calm and bright

From the column: "All these years later, my siblings and I, with one glance at the photo, know exactly what was going on."

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Contributed family photo / David McGrath’s mother, Gertrude, isn’t her usual warm self in this Christmas photo, even though she’s cuddling with her little girl, Nancy, who was around 5.
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Christmas at the McGraths’ was not always perfect. I was reminded of that by a photograph my sister posted online.

It showed my sister Nancy when she was around 5. She is dressed for bed in her pajamas and booties but wearing a smile since, after all, she’s nestled with our late mother Gertrude in a big easy chair next to the Christmas tree. My mother is dressed to the nines: necklace, earrings, and the fancy black dress with the lace top she first wore to Aunt Betty’s wedding. She is being careful, it seems, not to muss her makeup or her hair that was up in curlers all day.

Although seated with Nancy, her “baby” and the youngest of eight, the generous warmth to which we were accustomed as children is missing on my mother’s face. Her expression, a stony detachment, simply isn’t the mom we knew.

All these years later, my siblings and I, with one glance at the photo, know exactly what was going on.

We grew up in a working-class neighborhood, six boys and two girls, steeped in a brew of Catholic religion and Irish and Polish heritage, for whom Christmas was not only the most important holiday, but an obsession. Lights and decorations went up the day after Thanksgiving and didn’t come down until the Epiphany, Jan. 5. In 1971, our aluminum tree stayed lit for months until brother Pat came home from Vietnam.

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Our parents, Gert and Charlie, were yuletide party animals, coming close to celebrating all “12 days of Christmas.” They hosted up to half a dozen gatherings, one for each separate category of relatives and friends. All of us pitched in, readying for a dinner party one night, then cleaning up the next morning to prepare for the next. Through the holidays, a hundred different people might dine and drink and exchange gifts in our paneled basement, since my mother deemed it important, on the occasion of baby Jesus’ birthday, to hug every person who had ever been in her life.

But before the party for the Cichoszewski side of the family, and then the the McGrath side, and then the Vojtech cousins, and the Witters and Continos, and then the Morgans and the Mortisses from the old neighborhood, followed by New Year’s Eve with the Mittermans, Booths, Doyles, DiBennardi’s, and the rest from our current block — prior to them all, was the office party at the home of Dad’s boss, who was also his uncle. And that’s the occasion for which Gertrude was coiffed and simmering.

Eleven years old, I sensed her crossness but could not fathom the reason. Mom and Dad, after all, were going to our rich uncle’s, the only home we knew with a wet bar, a jukebox, and an inground swimming pool. Their four kids, our second cousins, had a pool table and a pinball machine in their “den,” along with a fridge full of Pepsi, Coke, and Good Humor ice cream bars.

But the annual office party was complicated in ways I would only later learn. For Dad sold tile for his uncle’s company and hadn’t had a raise in 10 years. By 1960, things were so hard that a man in a blue suit and a gray hat came looking to take back our Pontiac.

Meanwhile, I did not realize we were poor, since didn’t every boy share socks with his brothers, waiting his turn for the single pair with no holes? Nor did I grasp that Mom was living a real life version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Dad as Bob Cratchit and our rich uncle as Ebenezer Scrooge, tossing a bone to his minions with the office party, while she scrimped and saved to buy food.

Exploited and frustrated by Uncle Ebenezer, my parents turned on each other.

The night of the tile-company Christmas party — as Charlie, Jr., babysat and we watched “Gunsmoke” on the living-room TV — we were surprised to hear their Pontiac return early, tires squeaking in the driveway. But only Mom entered at the back door, as the station wagon sped away.

Nancy, asleep; Rosemary, starting to cry. The drama, however, seemed exciting to my brothers and me. Until, that is, Mom came into the living room and hugged each of us without a word, and I choked up as well.

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Next morning, as we ate our Cheerios in the kitchen — Nancy and Kevin on the piano bench at the foot of the Formica table; Charlie, Jr., Kenneth, and Jimmy on one side; and Pat, Rosie, and I on the other — Dad emerged from the bedroom. He brushed past Mom at the sink, neither looking at the other, and our world, I feared, was coming to an end.

Iciness persisted through the next day, and the day after, even as we hosted the Whitters and the Continos.

At breakfast on Christmas Eve, Rosie and I were charged with buttering 18 pieces of toast made with day-old Holsum bread, while Mom stirred oatmeal at the stove.

When Dad entered the kitchen, he stood at the head of the table, looking us over, and I held my breath.

“Did anyone hear those reindeer on the roof last night?” he finally said, and Nancy gasped.

On his way to the cabinets to get his favorite cup, he stopped behind Mom and put his arms around her waist. She shuddered at first — we were watching closely — then turned and smiled over her shoulder.

And never did the carol’s words have more meaning: “All is calm. All is bright.”

Such a smile, that filled our hearts with gladness.

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That signaled our world would never end.

The smile that saved Christmas, the best we would ever know.

Charlie McGrath left the tile company for higher pay and benefits as a salesman for Calgon Corp.
David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is an author, including of “South Siders,” and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. A version of this column was first published in the Chicago Tribune.

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David McGrath

Related Topics: LOCAL VIEWCHRISTMASFAMILY
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